Management

Thompson dishes on Census concerns, needs for catch-up

John Thompson, director Census Bureau 2013-2017

Former Census Director John Thompson

Recently retired Census Director John Thompson raised concerns this week about the status and swelling cost of the government’s largest civilian undertaking, and he urged Congress to adequately fund the final preparations.

Speaking July 25 at the National Press Club in Washington, Thompson, who now serves as the head of the nonprofit Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, reflected on the challenges facing the bureau and provided some insight on how Congress and the administration can help the Census ensure it delivers an accurate count.

The $5 billion in savings Census hoped to deliver by deploying more technology has taken a hit, as insufficient and uncertain funding has led to suspended -- and cancelled -- programs and tests.

In addition to the challenges posed by continuing resolutions from 2012 to date, the Bureau "has been underfunded by about $200 million ... to produce the kind of census that they were planning,” Thompson said.

“The big risk in pushing these things back is that ultimately if you don’t do the planning necessary, you’re going to have to do them in ways that were done in previous censuses,” he said. “The problem with that is you’re not going to be able to automate them, and they’re going to cost more money.”

Financially, “2017 was a particularly difficult year for the Census Bureau,” said Thompson, citing that the bureau was operating on a continuing resolution for most of fiscal year 2017, “which was at least $100 million below what they needed.”

“This caused some more dramatic changes" he said, referring to the cancelled field test, the suspension of the advertising programs and the decision to conduct address canvassing later and in person.

In the wake of the decision to cancel the 2017 field tests, the Government Accountability Office placed the 2020 census on its high-risk list, citing concerns over untested technologies. Census recently announced it was paring down the 2018 dress rehearsal as well.

Due to these cancellations, the lead-up to the 2020 census has prompted some comparisons to the 2010 count, in which the bureau reverted to using paper-based enumeration and went $3 billion over budget.

Census initially projected it would need over $2 billion in funding for fiscal year 2019 to get everything in order before 2020, but Thompson acknowledged, “it could be significantly more than that when the Census gets done looking at what they’re doing.”

Census released its last cost estimate in October 2015. At the July 11 quarterly program management review, Associate Director for Decennial Census Programs Lisa Blumerman said the updated cost estimate will be released later this fall.

With chances running out for Congress to fully fund the Census, Thompson urged appropriators to provide the bureau the money it needs before it’s too late.

“There is still time, but it’s going to cost some money to catch up, he said. “That’s why it’s going to be important for Congress to get behind the Census Bureau and support them.”

Thompson, whose term expired in December 2016 but was extended the Obama administration for an additional year, said that the next permanent director, who will be appointed by the Trump administration, could help secure that funding.

“I certainly think that someone [whom Department of Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross appoints will certainly have much more authority to do things because they will be, in effect, selected by Wilbur Ross or the president,” he said.

Thompson noted that while getting a new director in place takes time, he stressed the importance of permanent leadership, “especially as you get closer to [2020] because a lot of issues arise that get into the policy arena, where you need someone appointed by the administration to deal with them.”

The census was one of the only civilian programs to receive a funding increase in the White House’s budget blueprint, which requested $1.524 billion for fiscal year 2018 compared to the enacted $1.47 billion figure for fiscal year 2017.

“We took that as a sign that there was an awareness that the Census was important,” said Thompson, who also stressed his confidence that Ross “is committed to a fair and accurate census,” and that “the 2019 budget is going to be what the Census Bureau needs.”

“You can’t push anything else at this point,” he said.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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